US / 57 minutes / bw silent / Triangle Dir: W. Christy Cabanne Story: Robert M. Baker Cine: William E. Fildew Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jewel Carmen, Howard Gaye, W.E. Laurence (i.e., W.E. Lawrence), George Beranger, Dorothy Haydel, Lillian Langdon, Wilbur Higby, J.P. McCarty.
While writing the Encyclopedia, I assumed that the first movie to deploy the “depressed man commissions a hitman to kill him, then things start going right and he changes his mind, but how can he stop the hitman?” trope was the early (and excellent) Robert Siodmak outing Der Mann, Der Seinen Mörder Sucht (1931; vt The Man who Searched for his Own Murderer; vt Jim, der Mann mit der Narbe; vt Jim, the Man with the Scar). Luckily I didn’t actually say so, because this Hollywood silent precedes it by fifteen years or so.
Penniless August “Augy” Holliday (Fairbanks), “the hero of this story, an artist by profession, is long on temperament and short on funds. He can draw everything except a salary.” The rent collector (Higby) is after him; perhaps yet more dangerously, the other day, while dodging said rent collector by sketching in the local park, Augy saw “the most beautiful woman in the world”: Gladys (Carmen). The portrait that he has painted of her is, he believes, his best work ever. But how can an impecunious artist woo a society babe like Gladys?
Augy’s (Douglas Fairbanks) first sight of the beautiful Gladys (Jewel Carmen).
Luckily Augy has a pal in the rich Harry Hansum (Laurence). Harry gets him some fine clothes, promises him money, and arranges an introduction at Gladys’s home. Augy’s attempts at wooing lack couth, unsettling Gladys; her Auntie (Langdon) has anyway lined her up for suave Roland Dabney (Gaye). Luckily Gladys’s (much prettier) chum Phyllis (Haydel) is on Augy’s side, and engineers for him various circumstances in which he might better press his case. This backfires when Gladys comes across Phyllis rehearsing Augy in how he should make his proposal and assumes that Augy, the rotten two-timer, is betraying her.
Augy entertains some potential customers in his apartment, one of whom offers him $3000 for the portrait of Gladys. Augy, through love, refuses the offer, but the exchange is overheard by a burglar (uncredited), who later returns and steals the painting. According to the intertitles, “And this is the most unkindest cut of all.” Meantime, Harry has found himself unable to come through with the money he promised.
Rejected by the love of his life, bereft of his favorite painting, Augy tries to gas himself, a plan that comes to naught when the meter runs out. In the bar where he goes to get himself another quarter for the meter he encounters Automatic Joe (Beranger), a professional assassin who would, he boats, “croak a whole family for a dollar!” So Augy gives him $50 to bump him off sometime real soon.
Joe (George Beranger) even gives Augy (Douglas Fairbanks) a receipt, so everything must be above board!
But then things start going right for him. The cops have caught the burglar and the portrait of Gladys is safe. Harry is able to come up with the money after all. And Augy gets a telegram—
YOUR STEPMOTHER HAS JUST DIED AND LEFT YOU A MILLION DOLLARS
And the best is the last: There’s a letter from Gladys saying that, her friend Phyllis having explained the situation, she loves him after all.
The second half of the movie is taken up with the comedic possibilities of Augy, who now has everything to live for, being scared of shadows: everything he sees is a possible means of assassination, his fantasies fed by the inventive means of killing that Automatic Joe described when accepting his 50 bucks. Augy goes to the cops, who laugh at his claim that there’s an assassin on his tail and fob off on him an amateur, correspondence-school detective (McCarty) who’s been plaguing them. There’s a long (too long) sequence in which, because the detective dons an obviously false beard and Augy assumes the guy in the false beard must be Automatic Joe, lots of people with beards chase each other in sub-Chaplinesque fashion to no very great benefit.
Joe, meanwhile, has been so touched by the demise of his darling ailing mother that he’s decided to join the Salvation Army. It takes a few attempts before the Sally Ann can persuade him that his former life was wrong, but eventually they succeed. The only worry that Joe has is that he took Augy’s $50 and never fulfilled the contract. Of course, the harder Joe tries to return the $50, the more Augy assumes he’s stalking him with murder in mind. In the end Joe is able to summarize the dilemma: “I knew it was a sin to break our agreement, but I can no longer be a hired assassin.”
Tough times at the Sally Ann attempting to reform Automatic Joe (George Beranger).
This comedy has lots of entertaining moments. Among several, there’s the time when Augy, believing he’s being winsome, tells Gladys her hair and nose remind him of the best of the painter Rosa Bonheur; it suddenly occurs to Gladys that Rosa Bonheur only ever painted horses. Haydel and Beranger are excellent, the latter producing a great turn that’s both comic and sinister at the same time.
The movie’s not noir, obviously, but, until I learn otherwise, I think it may be the earliest movie example of a theme that would later pop up in several noir or noirish movies. The plot device itself supposedly goes back to Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (1879; vt The Tribulations of a Chinaman in China) by Jules Verne, but I’m sure someone can offer an earlier example . . .
On Amazon.com as a VHS: Flirting with Fate. Or, as part of a 5-DVD set, Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer (His Picture in the Papers / The Mystery of the Leaping Fish / Flirting With Fate / The Matrimaniac / Wild and Woolly / Reaching for the Moon / When the Clouds Roll By / The Mollycoddle / The Mark of Zorro / The Nut).